Like certain wines that lose their flavor beyond the region in which they were produced, Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) makes sense only in the context of the Belle Époque, which formed him and which he was destined or doomed to outlive by half-a-century. A dandy and an aesthete, he was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, whom he knew, and a disciple of John Ruskin and Walter Pater, whose injunction—“to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame”—he took thoroughly to heart. As he wrote at the age of 92, “I wanted to become and be a work of art myself.”
Certainly Berenson retained an air of relevance to the very end of his long life, and streams of fellow aesthetes paid him elaborate court in his Tuscan villa, I Tatti, where he lived for 60 years. By that time, he had achieved such celebrity that even people who couldn’t distinguish a predella from a breakfast tray understood that he was somehow important. To this day, Berenson remains famous—if not exactly relevant—and he may well be the only expert on Old Master painting to be known, or to have ever been known, beyond the hierophantic precincts of his profession.
As proof of this enduring consequence, a new biography has just appeared in Yale’s Jewish Lives series. Its author, Rachel Cohen, teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence. This brief book does not pretend to break new ground or to divulge the fruits of original research. Rather, it depends on the more thorough biographies that came out in the 1970s and ’80s by Meryle Secrest and Sylvia Sprigge, as well as the business records and correspondence, only recently made available, of Lord Duveen, who was, in essence, Berenson’s employer.
Basing her efforts on these earlier works, Cohen has forged a pleasing and readable synthesis. On balance, she appears to admire and even to like Berenson, though not without reservations, which is hardly a foregone conclusion among the more recent writers to have examined his career.
Many of them are suspicious of his success, both intellectual and monetary, even as they are put off by his posturings. By all accounts, he was a compelling figure in person; but such qualities as he had rarely shine forth from his writings, which tend to be marked more by the mannerisms of the Edwardian age than by the acuity of his judgment. As a result, few people read his books today, and the age he embodied—notwithstanding the marketable appeal of Downton Abbey and the like—tends to be dismissed as an effete prelude to something better.
A greater source of ill-will is the subject of his religious convictions, which are surely relevant to a book published under the rubric of “Jewish Lives.” Born Bernhard Valvrojenski in Butrimonys, a small town in Lithuania, Berenson was originally a Jew, but converted to Episcopalianism at age 20, and to Roman Catholicism soon after settling in Italy about 10 years later. It does not appear, however, that he was especially religious, certainly not in any conventional way. He went from being an assimilated Jew in Boston to being a tepid Protestant and then a noncommittal Catholic. But what has proved most damning to his reputation is one of his earliest writings, a survey of contemporary Yiddish literature published in the Andover Review when he was 23.
It is only through the study of Jewish institutions and literature that we shall begin to understand the puzzling character of the Jews. Begin to understand, I say, for comprehend them we never shall. Their character and interests are too vitally opposed to our own to permit the existence of that intelligent sympathy between us and them which is necessary for comprehension.
This passage has been widely quoted, and it would be difficult to catch a man in a more damning act of posturing. But there are mitigating circumstances. Berenson majored in Hebrew at Harvard, and his final thesis was titled “Talmudic-Rabbinical Eschatology.” The fact that he was inclined to write about Yiddish literature at all, and that he read it in the original language, attests to no ordinary interest in Judaica. And yet, in the overwhelmingly anti-Semitic society in which he lived, he felt, as Heine and Disraeli had, that conversion was the only path to success. Furthermore, he rarely tried to conceal his Jewish roots, and you may be sure that all who knew him—anti-Semites most of all—were fully aware of those roots.
In any case, there was surely more to the man than his religious convictions. One of the great appeals of Berenson’s life is the virtuosic correspondence he maintained for much of a century with over 1,200 correspondents, among them some of the most brilliant luminaries of the age. Cohen has mined these letters and brings to life Berenson’s friendships with Edith Wharton, Bertrand Russell, André Gide, and Marcel Proust, among many others—not to mention his long marriage and numerous affairs.
But all of these considerations are, of course, ancillary to those attributions of paintings and drawings upon which Berenson’s fame and greatness principally rest. Though not all of his attributions have stood the test of time, he did more than any other scholar to establish the study of Old Master painting on a scientific basis. Before him, the field was a morass of subjective assessments and debatable misconstructions.
Whereas most art historians—such as they were at that time—were rooted in the study of documents and literature, Giovanni Morelli, an Italian art critic, had devised, about a generation earlier, a more scientific form of connoisseurship. Through the discovery of recurring stylistic motifs that were unique to a given artist’s work (the consistent way in which said artist rendered a fingernail or an eye, for example), it was possible to arrive at more solid attributions than had been previously possible. But if Morelli created the theoretical framework for this study—comparable to contemporary advances in the study of ancient texts—Berenson was the first to make a profession of it and to master thoroughly the corpus of Old Master painting, especially that of 15th-century Italy.
Now it is the unfortunate fate of those who make their living in that line of work that, when they are wrong, they look foolish, and when they are right, their worthy contributions merge insensibly into the general mass of received truth. But even this consideration cannot conceal the size, quality, or revolutionary initiative of Berenson’s achievement: Quite simply, no one before him had ever studied the Old Masters, or any art, with such single-minded application over 70 years.
There have been recurring rumors that Berenson intentionally misattributed paintings simply to earn his commission from Lord Duveen. This does not appear to be the case. Surely, he was not above dressing a mediocre work in purple prose if he thought that would move merchandise; but he appears to have stopped far short of outright misattribution. He took art and himself far too seriously ever to perpetrate such an unseemly act.
But these accusations attest to one of the unlovely secrets of the trade in old paintings: In most cases, attribution is an educated approximation. Unless a work is signed, and its provenance documented back to the studio of its creator, 100 percent certainty is impossible. Within the capacious indeterminacy of that approximation, many a dealer, and more than one scholar, have lived out their careers in affluence. And they have done so with a semi-clear conscience, since the work in question may, indeed, be by the painter to whom they attribute it—and in most cases the attribution (by the very nature of reality itself) is not susceptible to definitive proof or disproof.
Yet even when this ineradicable subjectivity is understood, the fact remains that, before the more recent application of X-ray imaging and chemical analysis to old paintings, Bernard Berenson did more to illuminate this crucial corner of human culture than any single scholar had done before him, or is likely to do again.
James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).